You Resemble Me Deconstructs a Muslim Life That Ends Radically

21 November, 2022


Jordan Elgrably


Why do they do it?

Peo­ple who kill them­selves and oth­ers in the process?

There was a time when “sui­cide bomber” was an oxymoron.

No more. Legions have been will­ing to blow them­selves up for a cause, for decades.

But women? How many have ever crossed that threshold?

In You Resem­ble Me, Egypt­ian Amer­i­can screen­writer and fea­ture film direc­tor Dina Amer decid­ed to find out what could have brought about the demise of Has­na Ait Boulah­cen, who was called Europe’s first female sui­cide bomber. The film, now screen­ing in US the­atres, explores Hasna’s ear­ly life and con­tro­ver­sial death.


Les Revenants explores return­ing French jihadis.

A Venice Film Fes­ti­val offi­cial selec­tion, You Resem­ble Me has gath­ered up dozens of film awards and has a 100% Audi­ence Score on Rot­ten Toma­toes, in part, I sub­mit, because the child actors who star in the film’s ear­ly sequences are phenomenal.

Amer calls her­self “a recov­er­ing jour­nal­ist.” She was on the job when the Novem­ber 2015 ter­ror­ist attacks took place in Paris, with 130 killed at the Bat­a­clan and oth­er loca­tions around the city.

You Resem­ble Me begins in the Paris ban­lieu of Aulnay-sous-Bois, drilling down into the child­hood of Has­na and her younger sis­ter Mari­am. How did an ordi­nary girl from a work­ing-class Alger­ian fam­i­ly become rad­i­cal­ized? How do Arab/Muslim chil­dren who are born in France, who go to French schools, wind up ter­ror­iz­ing their fel­low French cit­i­zens? Was Has­na yet anoth­er vic­tim of Wahhabi/Salafist ide­ol­o­gy, which per­verts Islam to recruit young Mus­lims for jihad?

In fact, all but two of the Novem­ber 13, 2015 attack­ers were French or Bel­gian-born Mus­lims; they had all grown up in or around Paris or Brus­sels and had turned against their own peo­ple to become jihadis on Euro­pean soil — unlike the French-born Mus­lims whom jour­nal­ist David Thomp­son inter­viewed for his 2016 book, Les Revenants (The Returnees), who left France begin­ning in 2012 to fight for ISIS in Syr­ia. Thomp­son chron­i­cles the sto­ries of for­mer jihadis who fought on dis­tant bat­tle­fields, young men and women who attempt to come home and resume French life. For them, what dri­ves rad­i­cal­iza­tion is both a sense of duty to oth­er Mus­lims and a lack of accep­tance in white Euro­pean soci­eties, where they are often seen as brown “for­eign­ers,” despite being native born.

The Nor­we­gian jour­nal­ist Åsne Seier­stad cov­ered this ground ele­gant­ly in her 2018 book Two Sis­ters: Into the Syr­i­an Jihad, which chron­i­cled the lives of teenagers Ayan and Leila Juma, who secret­ly stole away from their Oslo fam­i­ly to join ISIS, mak­ing their way to Turkey before sneak­ing into Syria.

Child actors and sis­ters Ilon­na and Lorez­na Gri­mau­do as Mari­am and Has­na in You Resem­ble Me.

Work­ing with her screen­writ­ing part­ner Omar Mul­lick, Amer did more than 350 hours of inter­views with Hasna’s fam­i­ly mem­bers, embed­ding her­self in the com­mu­ni­ty for six years. Amer decon­structs Hasna’s life and recre­ates it like a col­lage artist with an all-see­ing cam­era, peer­ing close­ly into the hearts of two sis­ters who strug­gle with their men­tal­ly unhinged moth­er as they play and live on the streets, before going into fos­ter care.

We dis­cov­er that Has­na grows up large­ly with­out her moth­er, and with­out the ben­e­fit of her sis­ter Mariam’s con­stant com­pa­ny. You watch as she becomes a trou­bled lon­er who plays hooky and endures the school of hard knocks. Has­na has a hard time find­ing, and keep­ing, a job. Noth­ing goes quite right for her, it seems. Your heart breaks for a kid who has as much poten­tial as any kid in an aver­age dys­func­tion­al family.

You Resem­ble Me is now play­ing in US theatres.

But to go from social rejec­tion and bul­ly­ing to rad­i­cal­iza­tion? It’s a long bridge to cross, and You Resem­ble Me takes you on the jour­ney, met­ing out a few sur­pris­es along the way. The view­er under­stands that the direc­tor deeply iden­ti­fies with her sub­ject. And in order to show that Has­na was a com­pli­cat­ed per­son­al­i­ty, she deft­ly sug­gests that she may have been more than one woman, using a tech­nique that calls for three adult actress­es to embody Has­na. It’s a cin­e­mat­ic leap of faith that we once expe­ri­enced in the Luis Buñuel clas­sic, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), in which two actress­es, Car­ole Bou­quet and Ángela Moli­na, both play the char­ac­ter of Con­chi­ta, switch­ing roles in alter­nate scenes and some­times in the mid­dle of scenes. Here, Mouna Soualem is the most effec­tive ver­sion of Has­na, while Sab­ri­na Ouazani and Dina Amer her­self appear as alternates.

Amer explains in the film’s press notes that, “As a Mus­lim Egypt­ian woman liv­ing in the West, I’ve strug­gled to rec­on­cile pieces of my iden­ti­ty that feel con­tra­dic­to­ry. I am a woman who has spent the major­i­ty of my life pray­ing dis­creet­ly in pub­lic spaces (air­ports are the hard­est). And yet I don’t look like what most of soci­ety envi­sions as a Mus­lim woman. I don’t wear a hijab and I love Car­di B. Through­out my life I’ve lived through the shad­ow of how the fail­ure to rec­on­cile a Mus­lim West­ern iden­ti­ty with such clear con­tra­dic­tions can result in a haunt­ing headline.

“This film is a jour­ney through lay­ers of dis­as­so­ci­a­tion, from the per­son­al and famil­ial to the reli­gious and colo­nial; a kalei­do­scope of splin­tered iden­ti­ties and frac­tured dreams. You Resem­ble Me explores the unex­am­ined roots of trau­ma and the dev­as­tat­ing deci­sion that one woman made in the name of belong­ing. […] The inten­tion of this explo­ration is that it can help inform us as a soci­ety how to safe­guard oth­er indi­vid­u­als from falling into the same traps.”

Whether or not You Resem­ble Me suc­ceeds as a warn­ing, as a cor­rec­tive, against rad­i­cal­iza­tion, remains unclear. What the film does do is wrap you tight in its emo­tion­al web, nev­er let­ting you go.



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